What we can all learn about empathy
“No, you don’t! You have no idea how I felt.”
That is what a lady in the workshop I was running said to me. In front of 20 people. I could have died. In unison, 20 heads turned to me, 40 eyes, wide in anticipation of how I’d respond.
“You are right, I don’t. I apologise,” I said, feeling an idiot for making the mistake.
We were talking about stress and she shared her story about her Mum dying. I told her about my Mum dying in my arms and that I knew how she felt.
She was right of course. I didn’t know how she felt and I couldn’t know. What I said showed a lack of empathy. I made assumptions that because we shared a similar experience, we felt it the same.
I should have known better, after all I teach this stuff. I’m human though, so I accept I’ll make mistakes.
I made a couple in that moment. Yes, I made assumptions but I also only showed one level of empathy at best. At worst it was sympathy.
The problem with sympathy is that it has two meanings. The first is “feelings of pity and sorrow for someone’s misfortune”. The second is “an understanding between two people; a common feeling”.
The downside is that you have no idea with which the other person will take from what you said. At best the second won’t upset them, while at worst, the first might annoy them.
What would have served me better is a dose of empathy.
What is Empathy?
In short empathy is ‘the ability to understand and share the feelings of another’. Dr Brene Brown describes it as the ability to communicate with someone that they are not alone.
Simple to define, harder to practice.
The concept has only been around for around a century. Well, given a label and definition that is. Human beings have been practising it since Adam was a lad.
The three types of empathy
The word empathy originates from the German word, ‘Einfühlung’ meaning ‘feeling in’. It’s a fundamental part of emotional intelligence.
What most lay folk don’t know is that there are three types that psychologists have defined.
The first is cognitive empathy. Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence, described it as, “Knowing how the other person feels and what they might be thinking. Sometimes called perspective-taking.”
This is very much an understanding or appreciation at an intellectual level. We ‘get how they are feeling’. It’s great for negotiating, motivating others, virtual meetings and understanding opposing views.
It doesn’t connect us at an emotional level though. It’s not like me walking in your shoes. I can understand you are sad. I don’t feel your sadness.
This can be useful when it’s important to maintain composure and clear thinking. We do risk coming across as cold and uncaring though.
The second is emotional empathy. Back to Goleman again, “when you feel physically along with the other person, as though their emotions were contagious.”
Our ability to feel what someone else is, is partly down to mirror neurons in the brain. These little gems fire off when we see someone do something. Their physical actions, including facial expressions, crying, shouting, etc.
We in turn experience feelings and emotions. Now we are getting a deeper connection. This can serve us well as times, especially in certain careers like therapy, HR, coaching etc.
Unchecked though and it can lead to emotional overwhelm and inappropriate behaviours. For those in caring professions it can be draining.
You’ve experienced this when a loved one comes to you in tears. From joy or sadness, it does not matter. You feel that emotion with them. It tugs on your heartstrings.
Then there is compassionate empathy. Your third and final type of empathy.
This is when we understand (cognitive), feel (emotional) and move to help them.
This is holistic empathy because it takes in the whole person. As a result, this has few pitfalls. This is what we strive to achieve.
If that feels a bit touchy for some managers, it shouldn’t. It’s not about taking the middle ground. You can apply your emotional intelligence to respond with a caring detachment.
It’s not about being sucked in or fixing things. It is about being present. That can be all that a person needs.
Why it matters
Have you ever had one of those days when you want someone to listen?
Not to share their thoughts or experiences. Not to fix it. To listen.
We all need to be heard. To feel heard. This is where empathy comes in.
I’ve spent two years interviewing 28 people from across the world. These are people who have risen to C-suite level in organisations like Starbucks, Rentokil, Brother and more.
I asked them all about the qualities they look for in the best managers. Many talked about emotional intelligence, empathy, or qualities it’s hard to have without these two traits.
If empathy is so important, how can we get better at it? The good news is it is a learnable skill. I will stay short for the rest of my life, but I can increase the depth of my empathy.
Two things to develop and one to control
The first is a healthy dose of curiosity. Empathy requires genuine interest in the other person. The definition is ‘the desire to learn or know about…’. Without curiosity about what the other person is thinking or feeling it’s hard to build empathy.
To be curious, we must suspend judgement. Non-judgemental listening is key to empathy. Let’s be honest though, non-judgemental listening is not easy is it?
I know I often have that voice in my head, jabbering away at 100mph as someone else is talking. The one who likes to voice his own opinions. The one who can be dismissive of others, their views and how they are feeling. The one who isn’t listening to what they are saying. He is listening to respond, not listening to understand.
Yeah, that one. You know what I’m talking about.
Keeping him quiet takes self-awareness and self-care. If I’m stressed, tired or hungry he can be a nightmare to control.
Assuming, I have him under control, I’m curious and willing to listen non-judgementally, then I ask myself some questions.
How to build empathy using five simple questions
The North America Indians had a phrase; ‘You are my friend when you walk in my moccasins.’ This captures the essence of empathy.
To help you walk in someone else’s moccasins ask yourself these five questions.
What’s going on for them right now?
This is the first place to start. Assumptions are your enemy. Remember my embarrassing assumption at the start of this article? Make sure you fully understand what’s going on for them. In coaching we have a saying: ‘The problem the client brings you is never the problem’. There might be more going on than meets the eye.
What might they be feeling?
The mistake I made was to assume the lady in my workshop felt the same way I did. You can have a good guess and you might be right, but keep that to yourself until you can check.
Have I ever felt this was and what was it like?
This is where we use that emotional empathy we talked about earlier. You may have experienced something similar at one time. Recall it. Feel it.
What is important to them?
Again, intuition can help here, but only in-so-far as to build an idea of what that might be. Keep your ideas as a mental note until you can check with the other person. Their values, past experiences and motivations could mean what you think is important to them, isn’t.
What do they want from this interaction?
The last and no means least important question to ask yourself.
Mind the gap
Pausing to reflect on these five questions has saved me lots of times since my embarrassing moment. Reflecting on even one of these five questions can help.
The trick, and where these questions can help, is to extend the gap between action and reaction. The quicker we respond the less empathy we have.
Practice extending the gap to give yourself time to build empathy. It’s a muscle that needs constant exercising to serve you well.
. . .
I’m a writing rookie on here. If you took value from this article please consider leaving me a clap or even a comment, so others can find this post. Criticism welcome.